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Accidental Hero

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“This is as far as you go,” Captain Wayfinder said as his two crewmen tied the Sea Squall up at the docks of a ramshackle fishing village. A bleak harbour carved into the rocky shores of northern Skyrim, snow on the ground despite it being late summer, Guthrum said its name was Dawnstar.

            Reluctantly, the woman picked up her meagre bundle of belongings. She didn’t have enough gold to pay for a night at the inn, let alone convince Wayfinder to go past Windhelm to a neutral port like Raven Rock in Solstheim, not when someone had stolen the fine-cut void salts intended for someone at the College of Winterhold. He was a good navigator but poor captain; from Ravam Verethi’s comments, they were bleeding septims because of his inexperienced choices.

            Some of her apprehension must have showed, because Wayfinder sighed. “Dawnstar is better than Solitude or Windhelm, believe me. They check your travel papers at the former and we both know you’ve come to Skyrim without Imperial permission. As for the latter…” He shrugged. “I suppose that Redguards are a little more respected than the local Dunmer or Argonians, but if you don’t act sufficiently enthused about the Stormcloak cause, they’ll throw you in the Bloodworks as a potential spy.”

            There had been rumours of civil war in Skyrim floating around the taverns and teahouses of Jehenna, whispered behind beer mugs and teacups, and a visible drop in furs, ivory and Nord sailors in the marketplaces. Given that the northern port was half-Nord and dependent on trade from the east, the local authorities cracked down on anyone espousing anti-Imperial viewpoints. Skyrim leaving the Empire would literally break its back, as Hammerfell controlled the western Iliac Bay and the Thalmor controlled the rest.

            She didn’t bother correcting Wayfinder’s belief she was Redguard. Her racial ambiguity had saved her from Thalmor Justicars looking for an easy victim or Imperials trying to salvage their shattered pride by picking fights with a ‘barbarian’. Even in the Imperial Provincial Revenue Service, her progress through the ranks was stymied by her Nord ancestry and then once more again because of her paternal lineage.

            In Skyrim, on the other hand, they’d likely despise her for being a Cyro-Nord. The Skyrim-bred Nords she’d met in County Bruma and Jehenna made their contempt of their southern cousins quite clear.

            “Thanks,” was all she said before disembarking. Wayfinder had assured her that two hundred septims was enough for passage to a neutral port. Seven days of storm-tossed seas, dubious cooking and seasickness had sapped her strength to the point where she couldn’t argue anymore.

            There were rural villages bigger than Dawnstar in High Rock or Cyrodiil. Some of the cottages were low, squat affairs built from the ubiquitous grey fieldstone and thatched with old straw, while others were made of peeled, chinked boards and thatched with old straw. An alchemist and blacksmith plied their trades, an inn was the first building in town if you were coming from the land side, and there were two mines. Guards in quilted gambesons with swathes of chainmail and dingy cream wraps patrolled the town while banners of a stylised star hung from the walls of one slightly fancier longhouse. An old man in faded finery and a dented copper crown argued with a handsome older woman in quilted brocade, her companion openly wearing Legion armour. Comments made by the guards indicated that nightmares and insomnia were suffered by the entire town.

            Nightmares and insomnia were nothing new to her. But an entire town suffering them didn’t sound too good.

            The Windpeak Inn was dim, dank and reeked of something sweet-sour instead of the usual stale sour stench of beer. Two miners were complaining to a Dunmer about the nightmares and he was telling them to put their trust in the Lady Mara. From what she saw of Dawnstar, direct divine intervention couldn’t save the place.

            She approached the sullen, sad-eyed innkeeper. “How much to roll my bedroll out on the floor for the night?” she asked.

            “We got a spare room. Ten septims a night,” was the reply.

            “If I had ten septims, I’d consider myself blessed,” she said dryly. “I’ve just come off a boat from High Rock and he took most of my coin for the passage.”

            “Most of the workers around here are tired because of the nightmares. Chop wood or dig for some ore at the mine – I recommend Quicksilver over Iron-Breaker because Leigelf’s not a tight-arse the way Beitild is – and you’ll have the money by nightfall.”

            She gritted her teeth. “I’ll chop firewood. I’ve never been in a mine in my life.”

            By the time she’d chopped enough logs to pay for a bed and food, her hands were raw and every muscle ached. Life as an Imperial tax clerk didn’t lend itself to physical activity. If she was to survive, she needed to toughen up.

            Thoring nodded to the spare room. “You can have vegetable stew tonight and a half-loaf of bread in the morning. Help yourself to the mead barrel in the corner; it’s not Black-Briar, but it’s made in Dawnstar and better than water.”

            “Thanks.” She held up her hands. “Does anyone have any objection to me using a bit of Restoration magic? I’m more used to carrying books than logs.”

            Thoring shrugged. “Do as you want.”

            She was just soothing the scrapes on her hands with a minor healing spell when the Dunmer priest of Mara approached. “May I have a seat?” he asked.

            “Fine.” As soon as she sat down, the innkeeper’s pretty daughter Karita brought over the bowl of stew and a heel of bread.

            “You saved me a few hours of work,” she said with a smile. “Do you want something stronger than mead?”

            “Mead will do. I wasn’t joking when I said ten septims would make me feel rich.”

            The girl brought over two flagons of mead from the barrel in the corner. “Are you going to the College in Winterhold?” she asked.

            “I’m deciding.” That was a neutral enough answer.

            “Oh.” She wiped her hands on her apron and smiled. “Well, enjoy your stay at the Windpeak!”

            Once she was gone, the priest took a swig from his flagon. “A good girl with a big heart.”

            The mead was sweet-sour. Wasn’t it brewed from honey? She wasn’t sure. “What do you want?” she asked, tearing the heel of bread into small pieces and dipping them into the stew.

            “Your help in exorcising Nightcaller Temple, what the locals call the Tower of the Dawn,” the priest answered quietly. “It’s the source of the nightmares.”

            “With a name like that, it could only be home to a cult of Vaermina.”

            His red eyes flashed with surprise. “You would be correct. Few would make the connection.”

            “I had an excellent classical Colovian education until the age of eight,” she said dryly.

            “Well, then.” The priest looked around as a few more people, covered in stone dust and moving slowly, entered the inn. “I’ve tried finding a sellsword to help me as there are still dangers left from the cult’s time in the temple. There’s none to be found between here and Windhelm who wouldn’t make better money killing bandits and pirates.”

            “Can’t you find a guard or two?” She could see where this was going and exorcising a shrine to a Daedric Prince wasn’t on her to do list.

            “Skald sent three quarters of them to Ulfric’s Stormcloaks and those who remain see me more as a Dunmer than as a priest of Mara,” he answered. “Brina Merilis and Horik Halfhand offered to send word to the nearest Imperial garrison but… well, Legionnaires showing up in Dawnstar would get us all hung. Skald is a fervent Stormcloak worshipper.”

            “The Stormcloaks won’t help?”

            “Frorkmar sent a pigeon to Windhelm asking for one of Ulfric’s elite hearth-men but his wife sent back a message saying that a few nightmares were no cause for concern when all you needed was faith in Talos.” The priest snorted. “I have faith in Mara, she has faith in Talos, but the kind of genuine, open-hearted faith needed to guard against Vaermina’s powers is rare.”

            “Look, this sounds terrible, but why don’t you travel to Windhelm or somewhere else, find a mercenary, and come back here?” she asked. “Doesn’t the Fighters’ Guild exist in Skyrim?”

            “They have the Companions but…” He sighed. “Mara’s influence is slowing down that of Vaermina. If I leave, even for the two or three days it would take me to get to Whiterun and back again, half the populace could become mad or even die from exhaustion.”

            “Well, I’m not a mage, a priest or a sellsword,” she replied, eating some of the stew. It wasn’t bad as village tavern food went. “So why are you bothering me?”

            “Because by the look of you, you’ve got a knack for surviving and remaining sane in situations that would break other people,” was his blunt answer. “Whatever remains in Nightcaller Temple is yours. I simply need the source of the nightmares exorcised by the grace of Lady Mara.”

            “I’ll think on it,” she said. “I just want some sleep.”

            “Thank you.” He smiled, the expression softening his dour weathered face. “I am Erandur. What is your name?”


“You didn’t have to come with me, Egil.”

            Ulfric’s younger son, an athletic lad of twenty-one who still had traces of baby fat on his cheeks, scowled up at the Tower of the Dawn. “I did. This reeks of Vaermina’s influence and I haven’t met the priest of Mara who could keep themselves alive in a combat situation yet.”

            “I’ve heard of this priest. He got into a fight with Maramal after punching that snake-oil salesman Brynjolf in the face for selling false cures.” Ralof shaded his eyes against the rising sun to the east. “He’s a Dunmer, you know.”

            “Maybe he’s the exception to the rule, but this kind of mission calls for a Vigilant. We are a militant order.” Egil technically wasn’t a Vigilant or even a priest of Stendarr, but he’d had the training and only lacked vows. Ulfric had forbidden it after Bjarni’s behaviour began to piss off the Thanes of Eastmarch, threatening the succession of the Hold. Ralof rather thought Egil was unhappy about it. He really was the ‘smite the unholy’ kind of Stendarr worshipper.

            The Tower of the Dawn was a sturdy fortification surrounded by jagged hills and snowberry bushes. As they came closer, they saw a brown-robed figure with ash-grey skin and a Redguard woman in civilian clothing fighting off ice wraiths. Ralof jerked his chin in their direction. “Go up and help them. You haven’t killed an ice wraith yet.”

            Egil broke out into a jog, drawing his steel sword, and Ralof unlimbered his warhammer. Ice wraiths weren’t dangerous if you kept your head about you, but neither Redguards nor Dunmer dealt well with the cold. What left silver-blue scars on Nord flesh would leave terrible keloid weals on someone from another race.

            By the time he climbed the hill, the ice wraiths were dead. The Dunmer – Erandur – was wielding a heavy steel mace while the Redguard – tall for her kind and wearing clothing far too thin for late summer on the Sea of Ghosts – wielded an iron dagger that was little better than a butter knife. “You said there might be some traps in there,” she was saying accusingly to Erandur. “You didn’t mention whatever the hell those things were.”

            “Ice wraiths,” Egil explained, sheathing his sword. Already a silver-blue weal marred his left forearm, while several crisscrossed those of the tall Redguard woman. They weren’t as bad as he’d expected, though; perhaps there was some Nord blood in her. “Succinctly, they are the restless spirits of Nords who have died by ice, cold and exposure. When we kill them, we return their souls to Kynareth so that she may breathe them back into the world again.”

            “I’d always wondered about them,” Erandur said, hanging his mace from his belt. He was weathered and grim even for a Dunmer, his silver-threaded black hair and creased features hinting at middle age. The body under the brown priest’s robes was wiry-tough and his mace was well-worn. “You’re Stormcloaks, right?”

            “Yes. I’m Ralof Storm-Hammer, hearth-man to Jarl Ulfric, and the lad’s his son Egil, who’s had Vigilant training.” Ralof offered his hand to them, which Erandur clasped in the traditional Nord style and the Redguard shook like a Cyrod’s.

            Erandur’s eyebrow shot up. “The Stormsword made it clear to Frorkmar Banner-Torn that we were to trust in the power of Talos to protect us from Vaermina.”

            “Talos helps those who help themselves,” Ralof drawled. “The Tower of the Dawn is in a good position to observe the Sea of Ghosts. If we clear out Vaermina’s influence, we can put our own people in here.”

            “Ah, the fabled pragmatism of the Talosites,” Erandur said with a hint of dryness. “I, as you know, am Erandur, priest of Mara. The brunette is Laina, a new arrival to Dawnstar with a knack for magic. I’ve promised her whatever she can carry from Nightcaller Temple as she’s arrived with very little to her name.”

            Ralof took a longer look at Laina. Taller than most Redguards but only of average height for a Nord woman, her olive-bronze complexion and aquiline nose were more Cyrod than anything else, but her jaw and cheekbones were pure Nord. Her clothing was cut plainly, showing signs of travel, wear and mending, and her black hair was braided loosely down her back. “What brings you to Skyrim, Laina?”

            “I’m going to Solstheim,” was her curt reply, delivered in a low voice that sounded hoarse and weary. “I ran out of money here.”

            “When we’re done here, you can head back with us,” Ralof assured her. “The Northern Maiden ferries passengers from Windhelm to Solstheim twice a week.”

            “We shouldn’t delay in dealing with Vaermina’s influence,” Egil said grimly. “It reeks here.”

            “Agreed.” Erandur sighed and dry-washed his hands. “So, before we enter, I should tell you some of the history around Nightcaller Temple. About two and a half centuries ago, there was an Orc stronghold called Gral Mashog somewhere on the border of the Pale and Winterhold.”

            Laina’s eyebrows rose. “Gra-Mashog – that was the patronymic of Aurelia Northstar in the Orcish. Her father was Agol gro-Mashog.”

            “Aurelia Northstar?” Erandur asked with a wrinkled brow.

            “The Hero of Kvatch,” Egil answered. “I thought she was a Nord.”

            “Her mother was a Shieldmaiden and her father an Orcish blacksmith,” Laina said.

            “If he came from Gral Mashog and her from Yngvild, they likely met in Dawnstar,” Erandur said. “But… well… there was also a Temple of Vaermina. Malacath and the Dreamweaver aren’t friends at the best of times, and something happened that led to the priests of Nightcaller Temple sending nightmares to the Orcs of Gral Mashog.”

            The priest rubbed his face. “I should be honest with you. My parents died when I was very young and the Nightcaller cult ‘adopted’ me shortly after. For thirty or so years, I was a loyal worshipper of Vaermina, as I knew no other life.”

            “But now you belong to Mara,” Egil observed.

            “Yes. Partly because of what happened to the Gral Mashog Orcs. Their wisewoman found out that Vaermina was tormenting them in their dreams, and so a warband came to Nightcaller Temple to kill the cult.” Erandur tucked his hands into his sleeves. “Succinctly, the chief wielded Volendrung and the Skull of Corruption was no match for it. The cultists activated a trap known as the Miasma and… well, I don’t know what happened after that. I and a few Orcs escaped.”

            “Oh lovely,” Laina muttered. “I’ve been roped into a priest’s quest for redemption.”

            “What does this Miasma do?” Egil asked, flashing a sharp look at the woman.

            “It confers longevity, even stasis, but the cost is terrible dreams that will eventually bring insanity,” the Dunmer answered. “I can only pray that they are sane enough to listen to reason.”

            “The Skull of Corruption needs to be dealt with,” Egil said to the others. “According to the Vigilants, it feasts on the dreams of the unwary, leaving them hollow and haunted until they die of exhaustion. Erandur’s sins are his own – but the Skull must be banished.”

            “Yes. I fear Thorek and Veren will actively fight to stop us,” Erandur said unhappily. “I was a coward who abandoned his brethren in their eyes.”

            “Daedric cultists get what they deserve,” Egil said. “Let us be done with this.”

            Ralof nodded down to Dawnstar. “You can leave if you want, Laina.”

            Her jaw set mulishly. “I made a promise.”

            It was a simple matter to gain access to most of Nightcaller Temple. Erandur had set up a small shrine to Mara in the front chamber, at which they all prayed, and then he banished the big stone block concealing the rest of the complex. “Stay close,” he advised. “The sleepers may awake.”

            By the time they reached a barrier blocking off the stairs, Orcs and Vaermina worshippers were killing each other down below. Ralof closed his eyes against the carnage. “Poor bastards.”

            “Banishing the Miasma may not be able to help them,” Erandur said unhappily. “But we must try. What we need to bypass the barrier will be in the library or the stillroom.”

            The library was ramshackle and full of fighting. “I wish Bjarni were here,” Egil muttered. “I know he has some Illusion magic that can calm someone down.”

            “I thought Skyrim-bred Nords frowned on magic,” Laina observed, calling frost to her hand.

            “It depends. Restoration is a popular School and Destruction earns a measure of respect. It’s Conjuration that unsettles most of us,” Ralof told her. “You know, undead and Daedra.”

            “Yet you use enchanted items,” the woman said.

            “STOP!” Erandur yelled as he climbed a spar of stone. “There is no need to fight-“

            One of the Vaermina cultists threw lightning at him, only to die by Laina’s ice spike. Neither Orc nor cultist could be reasoned with, necessitating an ugly fight that saw the stone splattered in blood and worse. Fireballs and shock enchantments didn’t make for neat corpses.

            Laina threw up in the corner, wiping her mouth shakily, as Egil and Erandur searched the library for the recipe of something called Vaermina’s Torpor. That sounded like something Ralof wanted to drink. Or maybe not.

            “Found it!” Egil said, holding up a book emblazoned with the same figure as the banners all around Nightcaller Temple.

            Erandur leafed through the book, nodding. “Yes… We need the Dreamstride.”

            “That name sounds… interesting,” Egil observed.

            “It will allow the imbiber to experience the memories and dreams of another person from another time,” Erandur said, snapping the book shut. “Probably mine, when I was Casimir and not Erandur. I was the one who set the Miasma off.”

            “Well, can’t you drink it and remove the barrier?” Laina asked.

            “I fear not. The Dreamstride only works on the unaligned or the worshippers of Vaermina.” Erandur put the book on a nearby shelf. “I belong to Mara and Egil is touched by Stendarr. It will have to be you or Ralof. Preferably you… Because, as I said back in Dawnstar, you have a knack for surviving situations that would break the sanity and will of other people.”

            “Fuck you,” Laina said wearily.

            Despite the situation, Erandur cracked a smile. “Not without holy vows of matrimony, my dear.”

            Egil exchanged glances with Ralof. “I can’t order you to do this,” the younger man murmured. “But if she won’t…”

            “I’ll do it,” Laina said flatly. “In return, I want one of you bastards to pay for my trip to Solstheim.”

            “That’s a reasonable request,” Ralof said quickly. “I’ll pay for it myself.”

            They found more insane cultists and Orcs in the stillroom, which was bigger than the family wing of Ulfric’s palace in Windhelm. Erandur found the Dreamstride potion and handed it to Laina. “Drink,” he said, “And we will meet you on the other side.”

            By the time they reached the barrier, Laina was already there, removing the soul gem that powered it. “You really were a contemptible piece of shit, you know that?” she asked Erandur in an almost conversational tone.

            “Yes,” he admitted. “I don’t claim to be perfect. Mara forgives us and guides us to do better.”

            “The Imperial workhouse that the Benevolence ran in County Bruma didn’t get that message,” she said sarcastically. “By the way, more Orcs and cultists downstairs.”

            They had to butcher their way through the cult living quarters until they reached a giant Orc wearing the orichalcum armour of its kind. It was well-made and untarnished after two and a half centuries. “Stop, dammit!” Ralof yelled at the Chief. “We’re here to destroy the Skull of Corruption!”

            He paused, hand groping for a weapon that wasn’t there. “Where is Volendrung? Have I lost Malacath’s favour?”

            “Vaermina banished it,” Laina said. “It’s… been a while, Chief Jarlag.”

            “You know my name,” the Orc said suspiciously. “How?”

            “I’m descended from one of your younger sons who was left behind at the stronghold,” she told him. “We never knew what happened to you or anyone else.”

            “You have the look of that Shield-wench Agol was fond of,” Jarlag conceded reluctantly. “You don’t look like a fighter.”

            “She isn’t,” Erandur said. “I brought her here because she has the ancestral connection and a knack for survival that would impress Malacath himself.”

            “Wisewoman,” Ralof said quickly. “She’s the Nord equivalent of a wisewoman.”

            “Ah.” Jarlag sighed. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

            “I’m sorry, Chief Jarlag,” Egil said quietly. “Your male kin wouldn’t listen to reason. They were maddened by the Skull.”

            “The women and children?”

            “Their descendants live somewhere in Falkreath these days,” Laina said. “My branch diverged from theirs after Agol’s daughter’s death.”

            “Good hunting in Falkreath.” Jarlag walked over to one of the dead Orcs, closed his eyes, and picked up his mace. “We will destroy the Skull and then the blond warrior can send me to Malacath. He looks strong enough.”

            From there, it was a short walk to the sanctum, where an ugly-looking staff lay behind a magical barrier and two cultists, one a hefty Nord and the other a bulky Dunmer, waited with their maces drawn.

            “Casimir,” said the Nord. “You finally returned.”

            Erandur took a deep breath. “I failed you and now I belong to Mara. My name is Erandur.”

            The Dunmer’s mouth tightened. “You ran away like a coward.”

            “Yes, I did,” the priest admitted. “Now I am here to finish it.”

            “What has Vaermina given you but the death of your friends?” Egil asked, drawing his sword. “Repent and seek the Divines or die and go to Quagmire forevermore.”

            “He’s a priest of Stendarr,” Erandur said, jerking a thumb at Egil. “They’ve gotten a lot more militant over the past couple centuries.”

            The Nord smiled wryly. “Kreathlings are prone to going overboard, aren’t they?”

            “Erandur was raised by this cult,” Laina was saying quietly to Jarlag. “I think he’s trying to talk his friends into walking away.”

            “My sons didn’t get to walk away,” Jarlag said grimly.

            “You’re here to banish the Skull, aren’t you?” the Dunmer asked flatly.

            “Yes,” Erandur said with a sigh.

            “We can’t let you do that,” the Nord pointed out. “We could… compromise. We take the Skull and leave Skyrim. In return, you keep that pig-nosed greenskin from attacking us.”

            Erandur paused and Ralof truly believed he was considering it. Mara tended to prefer peaceful solutions, even if they were unwise in the long run.

            “No.” That was Egil. “There is no compromise with Daedric cultists.”

            “Then we have no choice.” The Nord sounded genuinely regretful. “You must die-“

            Jarlag went berserk and before either cultist could attack, he brained them both with the warhammer and then proceeded to attack the barrier surrounding the Skull. It took a few minutes for him to calm down, during which Erandur had been inscribing holy symbols with salt and water on the stairs leading to the Skull.

            “Mara forgive me, but I considered it,” Erandur said, closing the eyes of both cultists. “They were the only family I ever knew.”

            “Don’t,” Laina warned Jarlag as he lifted the warhammer. “He’s the only one with the ritual to banish the Skull.”

            “Then he better get it done,” growled the Orc Chief. “Or he’ll be apologising to Mara in person.”

            It was a long wait as Erandur knelt and prayed, glowing softly golden with Aedric energies. Laina’s brow creased and her nose wrinkled halfway during the ritual; she shook her head in sharp negation.

            “What is it?” Jarlag growled to her.

            “Vaermina’s trying to tempt me,” was her reply. “I have enough nightmares. I don’t want any of hers.”

            “Wise woman.” Jarlag suddenly laughed. “Get it – ‘wise woman’.”

            “We get it,” Egil said dryly.

            With a burst of white-gold light that didn’t sear the eyes, the Skull of Corruption was banished, and the last of the Miasma was swept away by a warm wind that smelt of lavender in summer. Ralof wiped his eyes. It smelt like home.

            “It is done,” Erandur said, rising to his feet and shaking with exhaustion. “Egil, thank you for stiffening my resolve. Mara is inclined to be compassionate and forgiving, but sometimes…”

            “Sometimes the only mercy one can grant is that of death,” Egil finished. “Let us exorcise this place and send all the dead to where they belong.”

            They dragged the bodies outside and used the broken furniture from the Tower for the pyres. The Orcs were given rites by Jarlag and Laina, the former coaxing the latter through the appropriate lines, before being put on the pyre. Egil, showing tact for a change, said nothing.

            “Burn me with my sons,” growled Jarlag when it was done. “You can keep my armour. I wager you Nords don’t have anything that good.”

            “We have the totemic carved armour, but that costs more than a Jarl’s ransom to get,” Ralof said. “You want to die in or out of the armour? I’d prefer the latter. It saves me the job of cleaning it.”

            Jarlag laughed. “I’ll die out of it… only because I like you.”

            Even out of armour, Jarlag was a tough fight, but he died after nearly breaking Ralof’s ribs. The Orc laughed weakly, his ribcage smashed in, and died with a smile on his face.

            Hoarsely, Laina chanted his funeral rites and then put him on the Orcish pyre. Erandur set both of them alight with a firebolt.

            “Everything in Nightcaller Temple is yours, as I promised,” the Dunmer said as the fires burned.

            “What will you do now?” Egil asked.

            “I was going to remain at the shrine but…” Erandur shrugged. “From what I know of Windhelm, Mara’s mercy is lacking. If you’ll have me, I’ll come with you to the city, and set up my shrine there.”

            “We could use a few more priests there,” Egil agreed. “We’ve got Jonna and Lortheim for Talos, old Helgird for Arkay, and I suppose I’m the closest thing to a priest of Stendarr outside of the Hall of the Vigilant. Perhaps if the Dunmer of the Grey Quarter see your example, they will understand that through the Aedra they can improve their lives.”

            “I convert no one,” Erandur said quietly. “It was one of the many reasons I left the Benevolence in Riften.”

            “You mean it wasn’t for punching Brynjolf in the face?” Ralof asked, a little disappointed. He was certain that auburn-haired bastard picked his pockets the last time he was in Riften.

            “I lost my temper that day. It was unworthy of me.” Erandur cracked a smile. “The look on his face was pretty funny, though.”

            “Someone’s been in Skyrim for too long,” Laina muttered.

            “I’ve been to Raven Rock,” Ralof told her. “Since the ebony’s dried up, it’s gone downhill, and it’s a pretty rough and ready place.”

            “It cannot possibly be worse than Bruma,” was her flat answer.

            “It’s… better than Bruma,” Ralof conceded.

            “Then Raven Rock it is.”

            “Why not Windhelm?” Egil asked. “Even with basic magic, you could assist the court wizard Wuunferth or the Temples. We don’t have a lot of healers and Restoration is an easy skill to learn.”

            “I don’t give a rat’s arse about your rebellion,” Laina said bluntly. “You’re courting the headsman’s block and the cross. I’m from Bruma. I’ve seen what happens to failed rebellions. My life isn’t much, but damned if I’ll die for Talos or any of his idiot worshippers.”

            She smoothed down her worn skirts. “I’ll be at the inn. I don’t think I can loot a Daedric temple.”

            Egil shook his head as she left. “How can someone be so self-centred?”

            Ralof sighed. “I’ve been to Bruma, Egil. Under Thalmor rule, it’s like a plane of Oblivion. The few Nords who still live there are… I don’t know how to put it.”

            “They’ve been forced to focus on survival instead of a greater cause,” Erandur said. “Laina’s not so unusual in Markarth, Riften or even the worse parts of the Grey Quarter. She did what we asked of her honestly. Let us give her her rightful reward and pray that she finds peace.”

             Ralof nodded at the Temple. “Let’s clean this up and move some soldiers into it.”

            He had bigger things to think about than one survivor of Bruma.